Rebuilding is a process with various stages. You don’t just go from a team that’s rebuilding to a team ready to contend. The last two seasons have been pretty bad, and not very fun. There have been moments, sure, but injuries prevented people from really enjoying the growth that several players had last season.
This season they are entering a different phase of the rebuild. No bigger indicator of that was the placement of Joel Armia on waivers. Last year, the Canadiens did everything they could to raise the trade value of some of their players. Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, and Joel Edmundson were prime examples of that and maybe even Armia himself. Now, the Canadiens are basically declaring that the potential mid-round pick in exchange for retaining some salary on Armia isn’t as important to them as giving the ice time to their young players.
In other words, the “collect future assets at any cost” phase is now over. That doesn’t mean the Canadiens become buyers, or that they won’t be sellers, it just means they aren’t sellers at the expense of developing players at the NHL level.
This is the first year that you can really say that most of the future core of the franchise is at the NHL and AHL levels. There are some exceptions, obviously, but the Laval Rocket only have nine players in training camp aged 25 or older. They only have three players older than 27, including Armia. That team is quickly becoming very young.
The vibes surrounding the Canadiens are great. The expectations and pressure is still low, but the players can look around and know that they are going to improve together. They are going to learn to win together. There will be other players coming in, but for the most part, this is the real start of the future core becoming the core.
If it all goes right: The ideal realistic scenario for the Canadiens would be a season that puts them on par with where the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators were last season. All of their top young players take another step forward, some establish themselves in that near-elite category, and the team collects another top-10 pick. There are no more questions about a lack of elite talent because they have multiple players over 80 points. If the power play becomes more effective and less like an in-game bathroom break, they might even have someone flirt with triple digits. The young defenders make life hard not only for their opponents but for the coaches and management who need to decide which ones are most deserving.
If it all goes wrong: The biggest knock on the current Montreal Canadiens is that there is a lack of elite talent in the pipeline. The worst case scenario for the team is that they are proven right. If Nick Suzuki really is only a 70-point player and Kirby Dach isn’t much better, the team could be in trouble. If Cole Caufield, despite last year’s pace and some saying he can score 50 this season, tops out as a 38-goal scorer instead of a guy hitting 50, that’s a problem. If Juraj Slafkovský doesn’t look any more comfortable than he did, and isn’t able to become a top-six player, that’s a problem. If the Canadiens finish in the bottom three of the league not because of injuries, or bad luck, or goaltending, and finish there because the current team isn’t good enough, it will likely never be good enough under this core. If that’s the case, Macklin Celebrini or Cole Eiserman become the start of the new core, not an addition to the current one because then this team just simply won’t be good enough.
The good news: The good news after reading that last bullet point is that the likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. Call me crazy, but I think you can win with Nick Suzuki and Kirby Dach as your top two centres down the road. They need to be well surrounded, sure, but so does Connor McDavid if he expects to win a championship.
Can Cole score 50?: I have seen at least three different high profile hockey people over the last few days say that Caufield may score 50 goals this season. As I mentioned above, a lot of the fancy round numbers will need to be helped by a power play that is actually productive. There’s no question that Caufield has the ability to put the put the puck in the net more than any Canadiens player over the last 30 years. If he plays close to a full season it will be fascinating to see how close he can get.
The Canadiens may have defined run and gun, firewagon hockey at one point, but this has been a team that either hasn’t had the offensive talent or stifled it for most of the last 30-40 years. Both the organizational mindset and the current talent is unlike anything we have seen in that time frame. I would be willing to declare that there is more offensive talent in the Canadiens organization right now than at any point over the last 30 years.
Bold Prediction #1: The Canadiens, finally having a relatively healthy season, will be in the top half of teams in goals scored. They haven’t been there since 2018-19.
Bold Prediction #2: The Canadiens will have at least eight players hit the 20 goal mark. Last year, they had three.
The Atlantic Division will be a battle: They already had four teams in the playoffs last season, including the team with the best record in the league and the eventual Stanley Cup finalists (two different teams). This year they add three upstarts that expect to make the playoffs this season. Then you have Montreal who are likely a year away from really joining that conversation. The reality is, the windows for Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Boston, aren’t closing shut immediately. They will continue to contend for a playoff spot for years to come. So, too, will Ottawa, Buffalo, Detroit, and Montreal. The reality is, it’s not out of the question that one of the four teams I just mentioned will need to start another rebuild without making the playoffs. Such is life in the NHL’s most competitive division.
Bold Prediction #3: That team won’t be Montreal. Obviously they’re at an advantage that they are earlier in the rebuild, and it won’t be this season, but they’ll get there.
Bold Prediction #4: The Canadiens will be closer to a playoff spot (in terms of points) than to last place in the NHL. Last year they were 24 points out of the final playoff spot and 10 points from last place in the NHL.
Bold Prediction #5: Cole Caufield scores at least two goals against the Vegas Golden Knights. October 30 and November 16 are the two days the Canadiens will face their former coach Dominique Ducharme, who is now an assistant with the Vegas Golden Knights. Caufield, remember, scored only two goals before Ducharme was fired during the 2021-22 season.